Even with signs that the economy has bottomed out, slow job recovery looks likely. Given recent events employers will be cautious about rehiring, preferring to keep present staff levels and seeking instead to increase worker productivity. In theory the prospect of a transformative green economy promises a lot for an otherwise gloomy employment picture. Prospects include plenty of jobs at all skill levels: from highly trained engineers, materials scientists and IT experts working on electric vehicles, building a smart grid and solar technologies, to less skilled manufacturing and installation workers implementing renewable energy and energy efficiency systems for millions of American homes and businesses.
As with most economic transformations however, this one is not going to be as fast or smooth as we might hope. Most of the goods and services comprising the green economy aren’t things people rush out to buy the first time they start feeling more financially confident. Many of the green economy’s products are infrastructure related or big ticket items like housing and automobiles; purchases that will probably be postponed longer than in the recent past.
We have to start building the green economy now. But it will not happen overnight. We are an impatient society; this is one of our strengths. Who can blame someone who needs a job or whose mortgage is in jeopardy for wanting to see rapid economic improvement? But the following vignettes, as promising as they are in most respects, suggest that the trip to the green Promised Land may take longer than we wish:
- The recession is bringing substantial consolidations to the solar industry, which has invested heavily in production facilities during the past several years and now faces weaker demand. This over – capacity is good news for some solar project developers and consumers since solar panel prices should fall further, but bad news for the solar manufacturing industry and its employment outlook.
- Even with lower prices for solar and public subsidies, many home and business owners will remain wary of assuming additional debt for solar and energy efficiency projects, except in states such as California where substantial subsidies and highly attractive paybacks are available.
- The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act features a host of green initiatives. www.recovery.gov. Among them, the Act includes the high performance Green Buildings Fund, which targets $5.5 billion to bring Federal buildings up to green specifications. But, projects in this green portfolio may take up to 2 years to bid out and several more to construct, so the jobs bounce won’t be immediate. The Department of Energy has also recently announced almost $500 million in support of geothermal and solar energy projects and R & D , which is welcome, but not an overnight jobs program.
- Development of a Smart Grid will proceed because it makes operational sense. But there is controversy about its implementation. Will this be a top down affair, driven by the utilities or a bottom up approach spearheaded by individual producers/consumers such as homeowners and small businesses equipped with renewable power technologies? . In all likelihood utilities will play a major role but it seems unlikely they will be able to monopolize the system, keeping smaller distributed power producers off the network. At any rate, the Smart Grid will be a work in progress for decades, particularly as millions of grid points are added.
- When the green jobs materialize people will need the skills to carry them out. Delivering training will take time. The good news is that training and education programs can begin quickly. Once they are trained however, people will need to be located where the jobs are found. For example, folks in Michigan, with a nation leading unemployment rate of about 15% may not be best positioned for solar manufacturing and installation jobs, which are more likely to be found in the Southwest. .
- With new housing construction still quite moribund, at less than half of what it was last year at this time http://www.census.gov/const/newresconst.pdf a huge market for renewable and energy efficiency products and services remains depressed. Until housing recovers the focus will necessarily be on retrofitting existing homes and buildings – a good thing, but sometimes harder to implement than incorporating green technologies in new construction.
- While electric vehicles may ultimately provide a substantial answer to global clean transportation needs the automotive product development cycle is often 5-7 years for a new model, especially one that incorporates new technology. We shouldn’t hold our breath as the industry retools for green cars. Even the poster car for the restructured General Motors, the plug in hybrid Chevy Volt, has been the subject of delay rumors as GM grapples with developing a strategy to achieve profitability as soon as possible. Conventional, high mileage vehicles manufactured overseas and sporty cars like the Camaro may figure in GM’s short term recovery strategy more prominently than the Volt, which will likely be a money loser at first.
- On a positive note Recovery Act monies allocated to weatherization of lower income Americans’ homes may begin to produce employment and energy results quite quickly
Products and techniques for weatherization are well established and training and installation programs quite simple so this may have short term positive impact on jobs.
Finally, we are pleased to note an explosion in the demand for domestic chickens as pets and food sources. Yes, chickens are green, clucking around suburban back yards providing eggs, manure and perhaps the occasional McNugget. We don’t know how much employment has been created but hatcheries have been unable to keep up with demand.